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Berried treasure

26 September 2014

iStock

MOST mature gardens have a patch of ivy somewhere, and, if it has been allowed to climb and reach the extent of its support, it is probably flowering now. The spherical arrangement of flowers is a good source of nectar for insects late in the year.

The tangle of stems and foliage is a protective cover for small mammals and hibernating butterfly species; so hold back with the secateurs. This will also allow the flowers to develop into berries, which are a favourite of blackbirds, but are also eaten by many other birds through the winter.

Some may consider the common ivy rather dull. There are other British natives with a good yield of what we casually call "berries", unless we are botanists. The spindle tree, Euonymus europaeus, bears pendent capsules with the uncommon characteristic among dry fruits of bright coloration.

Not only that: they rupture to reveal even brighter seeds. The cultivar "Red Cascade" has particularly abundant rosy-red "berries", and has decorative orange seeds that are loved by birds. The spindle is deciduous, but the dying leaf colours of crimson, pink, and gold further enhance the autumn show. It is a fast grower, reaching 1.8 metres in five years. Euonymus planipes, from the Far East, is similar, and goes by the common name dingle-dangle tree.

It is always a pleasure to come across a guelder rose, Viburnum opulus, in the countryside at this time of year, with its deep-red leaves and fruit to match. It suits an informal or woodland corner of the garden, and can be bought as the yellow-berried cultivar "Xanthocarpum". Dark fruits are rich in antioxidants, which may explain why garden birds tend to eat red- and purple-berried fruit in preference to orange and yellow. Your Viburnum "Xanthocarpum" will be raided only in hard times.

We tend to grow honeysuckle, Lonicera periclymenum, for its heady-scented flowers in summer. It is a twining shrub rather than a climber, common in hedgerows. Creamy-yellow-flowered "Graham Thomas" is a more garden-worthy form, with a supreme scent and a long-flowering season. The flowers develop into a tight pyramid of red berries liked by bullfinches, warblers, and thrushes.

Cotoneasters, and closely related pyracanthas, although alien species, confer a similar benefit to wildlife to our native ivy: namely, winter berries, and nectar when it is in short supply. The widely grown Cotoneaster horizontalis is lovely as a wall shrub, or to cover a bank where its herringbone structure of branches displays the tiny red fruit (which are technically "pomes").

Cotoneaster lacteus makes a good evergreen boundary shrub or hedge. It is tolerant of a windy spot, and bears large clusters of red berries that persist well into winter. Cotoneaster salicifolius makes an attractive and graceful specimen tree for a small garden. It grows to about seven metres, has evergreen willow-like foliage, white flowers in June, and dangling bunches of fiery fruit.

So consider adding berries to your plot, and, if you really need to cut back your ivy, do it in early spring - after it has provided its bounty, and before the nesting season.

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